In this episode, guest Jayarava hits the Imperfect Buddha podcast with some hard truths regarding the impossibility of rebirth & karma whilst drawing on the work of Sean Carroll & his own research into Buddhism. It’s not an easy pill to swallow but it may just prove liberating to those braver Buddhists willing to confront the finality of death. Whatever you end up deciding, it’s a fascinating topic and Jayarava’s insights are not easy to dismiss.
The interview is straddled by a very short discussion on the challenges of the material and Stuart shares his own destabilising reactions, which will no doubt be shared by many a listener.
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I read through a number of Jayarava’s article at his site but the one that was key for me in our discussion of rebirth and karma is this ‘There is no life after death. Sorry.’
Reading List provided by Jayarava
The aim of this reading list is to highlight some examples of excellent academic writing, with a focus on work that has made me reassess my views.
Nattier, Jan. (1992) The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223.
Jan Nattier is one of the finest scholars of Buddhism of any era, and perhaps my all time favourite. This article is an exemplary piece of scholarship. Nattier is a clear thinker and good writer who presents her evidence without any unnecessary jargon (some jargon is necessary of course). The material is presented methodically, drawing us through a though process that allows us to grasp the conclusion as if we ourselves were working through the problem. Although the Heart Sutra is a very well known text, it is not much studied in the West precisely because it is so well known. However, after more than 20 years the article is poorly known and even less well understood amongst Buddhists.
Nattier, Jan. (2003). A few good men: The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai’i Press.
This book shows all the hallmarks of Nattier’s work, good writing, presentation of evidence, major discoveries. However, the book also provides an almost forensic analysis of the process of working with Buddhist texts. Thus, as well as providing important insights into the formation of the Mahāyāna, it gives the lay person valuable insights into how the scholar goes about their work; and how such discoveries emerge.
Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox.
In 2006, Professor Gombrich gave the Numata lectures at SOAS and I travelled down to London each week, for ten weeks, to hear him speak. It was a revelation. Those lectures became this book, the title of which is a pun on Rahula Walpola’s What the Buddha Taught (Walpola was one of Gombrich’s teachers). The lectures themselves were based on Gombrich’s oeuvre over some decades. An archive of Gombrich’s articles can be found on the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies website (under reconstruction 23.10.15 but see http://ocbs.org/). Gombrich’s keys insights are into the formative influences of early Buddhism and its relationship with existing religions. For me the take away concept is that ideas in Buddhism have a history. Sometimes these ideas existed long before Buddhism, e.g. rebirth, karma, saṃsāra, and meditation. Reading Gombrich encouraged me to read the early Upaniṣads and better understand the ideas found there as they form precursors for many Buddhist ideas.
I’m also grateful to Gombrich for his generous help and advice over the years, and his exemplary editorship of the JOCBS, which has to date published three of my articles.
Drewes is a scholar of impressive breadth, which has enabled him to take a step back and reassess the new wave of scholars from people like Nattier, Harrison, and Karashima, amongst others, and to evaluate the conclusions reached. He has pointed out necessary corrections and brought together the new ideas into a more coherent historical narrative.
Drewes, David. (2007) Revisiting the Phrase “sa prṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet” and the Mahāyāna Cult of the Book. Indo-Iranian Journal 50: 101–143DOI 10.1007/s10783-007-9052-zhttps://www.academia.edu/9225110/Revisiting_the_phrase_sa_prthivipradesas_caityabhuto_bhavet_and_the_Mahayana_cult_of_the_book
Drewes, David. (2010a). Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship. Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship
Drewes, David. (2010b). Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism II: New Perspectives. Religion Compass 4/2: 66-74. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00193.x https://www.academia.edu/9226471/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_II_New_perspectives
For my understanding of Buddhist history. I’m also indebted to Paul Harrison, Seishi Karashima, Harry Falk, and Richard Salomon for their insights into the early Mahāyāna texts; to Collett Cox and David Bastow for their work on Sarvāstivāda; to Michael Witzel for background on Vedic India.
Outside of the fields of Indology and Buddhism, I’m strongly influenced by certain other scholars such as Thomas Metzinger, George Lakoff, Justin Barrett, and Robin Dunbar. A partial list of works can be found here:
Jayarava’s writing on karma and rebirth
And academic work